Effects of social media use on children examined

By Danielle Ray
March 29th, 2024
Clinical child psychologist Melissa Otero, Psy.D.
Clinical child psychologist Melissa Otero, Psy.D.

Mental, physical health can suffer

The potential negative effects of the digital world are well-documented, particularly as they pertain to the mental health and safety of youth.

Community leaders in Connecticut along with health care providers and politicians are working to address the issue. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), during a West Hartford school roundtable held earlier this year, spoke on the Online Kids Safety Act, designed to establish online protection for minors.

Researchers have acknowledged that in a world where digital devices are part of daily life, children’s self-esteem can be impacted. The addictive nature of social media triggers dopamine responses with positive comments and creates reward pathways that can affect mental well-being.

According to the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of adults and 81 percent of teens in the U.S. use social media. This prevalence puts a large portion of the population at an increased risk of feeling anxious, depressed, or even physically ill over their social media use.

“Despite the fact that we have seen countless issues around child and adolescent social media use for many years, only in recent years have we truly begun to understand the impact that devices and social media use has on youth,” said clinical child psychologist Melissa Otero, Psy.D. “It was only in 2023 that the Surgeon General released its first advisory report on social media and youth mental health.”

Otero has been at Sacred Heart Greenwich, a private pre-K through grade 12 school, for eight years. She also maintains a private practice in Greenwich, where she has worked with children, adolescents, and their families for more than a decade.

“In my role as a school psychologist, parents have frequently asked for support in this area as they often find it challenging to manage the fast-paced digital landscape,” she noted.

Otero emphasized that social media and electronic devices are designed to be addictive and understanding that situation is key.

“It is not that children are doing something wrong. Rather, the companies that make these devices and design these platforms want children and adolescents online as much as possible. For parents, this can feel like an uphill battle and in many cases, it is,” Otero said.

She said there are questions to ask and signs to look for when it comes to internet or social media addiction. These include if children are devoting so much time to the digital world that it is disrupting important areas of their lives such as school and family activities.

“Are they using devices in risky situations? Are they unable to put the phone down in those situations where something bad is likely to happen because they are distracted?” Otero said.

Other signs include changes in academic performance, increased social isolation, constant use of devices, less time doing things they previously enjoyed and acting withdrawn.

“We want to pay attention to whether they become irritable or unable to engage socially when they don’t have access to their device,” she continued. “If the answer to these questions is yes, a parent may want to seek support.”

Otero relayed that constant online scrolling while managing pop ups, ads, and notifications “leads to an experience where divided attention becomes the norm, and maintaining concentration becomes more difficult.”

She said she is most concerned that research demonstrates regular social media use is changing brain structure, function, and cognitive performance in three key areas: attentional capacities, memory processes, and social cognition.

Otero added that some studies have suggested a correlation between social media use and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

“The content of our memories as well as our ability to recall our memories is also impacted as we sometimes focus more on recording an event than actually experiencing the event,” Otero said.

She said a child, on average, spends three and a half hours per day on social media, a statistic Otero called, “concerning.”

The 2023 Surgeon General’s report on social media and youth mental health indicated that teens who use social media for more than three hours per day face double the risk of depression and anxiety symptoms.

Because youth spend so much time communicating through texts or apps as opposed to face to face – “or at least over the phone” – they are missing out on practicing social and communication skills, such as conflict resolution and the ability to read someone’s facial expressions and emotions, according to Otero.

Otero works with children of all ages and has “seen a broad spectrum” of ways children interact with social media and electronic devices.
She finds it interesting that children do not identify social media as something that makes them feel good. Even the dopamine hit from positive comments and likes online does not last long.

In contrast, when we have joyful, fulfilling experiences, like seeing snow for the first time, creating art, or seeing a beloved family member, the effects are longer lasting,” Otero said.

When working with children and families, Otero encourages them to engage in joyful experiences and connect in the real world.

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